As a child, my parents taught me to abhor violence. From “don’t hit your brother” to “violence never solves anything”, I was indoctrinated with pacifist and liberal ideas from the time I was old enough to walk. As I have outlined in a previous post, this background led me to a belief in Jesus Christ. In an enormously painful situation, I found in myself a violence and evil that clashed with my upbringing and made me feel horrible. Agonized by the vengeful desires of my heart, I eagerly accepted the gospel in order to be free from sin and become a better man. Because this pacifist teaching led me to Christ in this way, I consider it to be essentially true and an enormous source of blessing and benefit to me.
At the same time, these liberal and pacifist beliefs have been the single greatest source of my struggles with the Christian faith. Why? Because my upbringing combined with the fact that I am a citizen of an affluent and peaceful society to make me naive concerning the true horrors of human evil. I have seen documentaries of the Holocaust, but I have never personally experienced evil unrestrained by government authority. Because I am ignorant of the true horrors of evil in this way, certain passages in the Bible seem incredibly primitive and brutal to me. When I originally read these passages, I acted as the proverbial ostrich and “buried my head in the sand”. I ignored those portions of Scripture or I rationalized them away as error or myth.
My reaction to these portions of Scripture has not been unique. I believe that this same sentiment is responsible for what is called the “Red Letter Heresy” and is also responsible for the rejection of Christianity by many people in the modern West. People of good conscience and upbringing read certain portions of Scripture and they respond to the obvious and grotesque ugliness with revulsion, shock, disbelief and doubt. “Human beings aren’t bad enough to deserve that.”, they reason to themselves, “These Bible passages are horrible and they cannot be the word of a good God.” Some Christians reconcile these problems by interpreting the Bible as mythology and not taking it literally. Other Christians avoid reading these passages and ignore them. Those outside the church reject Christianity entirely using the excuse that the God of the Bible is amoral.
When I first wrestled with these issues, I attempted to reconcile my pacifist and liberal beliefs with the Bible by reinterpreting the Bible through a pacifist lens. My approach was to use the Jesus Christ of the New Testament as the “Rosetta Stone” to interpret the Old Testament. Following this idea, I read the Old Testament and compared all the actions of the judges, kings and prophets to the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. While this approach has been tremendously successful and yielded many useful insights, it was ultimately unsuccessful and I have given up on a pacifistic interpretation of the Bible. What were the successes of the pacifistic approach and how did the approach fail?
The Success of the Pacifistic Approach
Though the connection may not seem obvious, the first success of this approach was the idea of inherent evil. This led me to understand that the Old Testament prophets were sinners who were righteous by faith. This understanding allowed me to see the Old Testament as the process by which God took a primitive and barbaric people and taught them the basics of morality. All of this thinking culminated in a more balanced view that helped me understand the cross and the nature of the Atonement. These insights strengthened my faith and answered most of the difficulties that I had when reading the Bible.
The Failure of Pacifism
Ultimately, however, my attempt to “pacifize” the Bible foundered on the rocks of the unlimited human capacity for evil. As I have studied radical Islam, I have come to the conclusion that human nature is capable of an evil that is so great that the pacifist principle must be abandoned. Ultimate good cannot remain eternally pacifistic in the face of unrepentant evil. If ultimate good (God) does not judge unrepentant evil, then He becomes evil as a facilitator of evil. God cannot allow the Nazis to terrorize, torture and murder people indefinitely. He must bring judgment or He is complicit with the crimes of the Nazis. God cannot allow radical Islamic terrorists to lie, terrorize and murder indefinitely. He must bring judgment or He is complicit in the crimes of the terrorists. God can delay judgment in order to show patience and mercy, but He must ultimately bring judgment to the unrepentant no matter how much He loves them.
Jesus as Judge of the Nations
With this vital truth in mind, let us examine some of the more difficult passages of Scripture:
A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the people of Sheth. Edom will be conquered; Seir, his enemy, will be conquered (Numbers 24:17-18)
Who is this, robed in splendor, striding forward in the greatness of his strength?
“It is I, proclaiming victory, mighty to save.”
Why are your garments red, like those of one treading the winepress?
“I have trodden the winepress alone; from the nations no one was with me. I trampled them in my anger and trod them down in my wrath; their blood spattered my garments” (Isaiah 63:1-3)
The Lord is angry with all nations; his wrath is on all their armies.
He will totally destroy them, he will give them over to slaughter.
Their slain will be thrown out, their dead bodies will stink; the mountains will be soaked with their blood. (Isaiah 34:2-3)
These passages speak of the Messiah “crushing the skulls” of Edom, trampling His enemies in the winepress of His anger and being soaked with their blood. To say that these passages were difficult for me to accept given my pacifist upbringing is an understatement. Even accepting that God must bring judgment on the wicked, these passages are difficult to swallow. They do not seem like the acts of a loving God, but rather the revenge fantasies of a brutal and primitive people being oppressed by foreign invaders. Is there any way to interpret these passages in a way that is more consistent with the “gentle Jesus meek and mild” of the New Testament?
An Unsatisfying Answer
In the original version of this essay, this section contained a very weak argument attempting to answer this question. The truth is that I do not have a satisfactory answer for this problem and have decided to delete my previous attempt for the sake of honesty. The necessity of God dealing out judgment to those who will not be persuaded to voluntarily repent of their sin is obvious to me, but the gruesome imagery in some of the Old Testament verses seems gratuitous. It may be, as I argued previously, that the violence of God’s rejection of evil serves as an illustration of the severity with which God views certain sinful attitudes and that this illustration aids those who witness it in some way. The simple fact, however, is that we do not know enough to answer this question in a satisfactory way at this time.